U.S.-Syrian relations under a strain Damascus signals anger with West


DAMASCUS, Syria -- In recent weeks, it has become painfully apparent that a new chill is descending on the once-thawing U.S.-Syrian relationship.

With the Middle East peace talks seemingly going nowhere and the United States leading the drive to enforce United Nations sanctions against Libya, Syria -- along with other Arab nations -- is having second thoughts about the foreign policy of President Bush and the United States.

Alarm bells have been going off all over Damascus, starting in April, when Syrian President Hafez el Assad equated what Mr. Bush calls the "new world order" with "the law of the jungle." Mr. Assad also accused the United States of unfairly seeking to subvert Arab arms acquisitions while providing large-scale military aid to Israel.

Diplomats here say the Syrians were also "absolutely outraged" at U.S. threats to halt a ship believed to be carrying sophisticated intermediate-range missiles to Iran and Syria earlier this year. More recently, officials expressed dismay at the United States' failure late last month to remove Syria from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism, continuing the ban on U.S. economic and military aid to the economically strapped nation.

Western officials tend not to worry too much about the cooling with Syria. No one expected a honeymoon, they say, and in the places where it counts -- say, participation in the peace talks -- Syria is on board and will stay there because it is in its interest to do so.

Damascus has sent out warning signals in the last few months that it might be prepared to ease its historic enmity with neighboring Iraq if its rapprochement with the West does not work out.

"It's a tactic," one diplomat here said. "Syria sees it as in its interest to give a signal to the West that you have to do something to keep us on side."

But it got people's attention. So did Syria's threat last month, whenthe U.N. sanctions against Libya took effect, to fly a plane to Tripoli. Syrian Arab Airlines even took tickets and checked baggage for the flight before announcing that surrounding countries would not let the jet fly through their airspace.

Alarmed U.S. officials demanded an immediate explanation. A Syrian official was said to have replied with a shrug: "Have you seen a flight leaving for Libya? No? Then what are you complaining about?"

"There's very strong disillusionment. We expected more," said one Syrian Baath Arab Socialist Party official of the relationship with Washington.

What is at work, said diplomats here, is Syria's fear that, with U.N. sanctions already in effect against Iraq and Libya, the United States may next single out Mr. Assad's regime for international pressure.

"With the sanctions, of course, we should be worried. We are next. That's the general feeling," the Baath Arab Socialist Party official said.

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